On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Most observers expect federal immigration proposals to stall when the new Congress convenes this month. But some states are likely to move forward on their own, especially on the question of extending in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrants. We talk to the architect of Maryland’s “DREAM” Act about his immigrant tuition plan.
- Victor Ramirez Member-elect, Maryland Senate (D-Prince George's); Former Member, Maryland House of Delegates
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, exploring the truly native cuisines of the Americas, we take a culinary tour at the National Museum of the American Indian. But first, Maryland enters a nationwide debate about immigration. Last month, Congress rejected a proposal to offer a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. Absent any new federal guidance, state lawmakers around the country are stepping forward with their own immigration proposals this year, including one in Maryland, to offer in-state college tuition benefits to undocumented immigrants who have attended state high schools and whose parents pay taxes. But these state-level proposals may also draw the same amount of fire from opponents as those that have consumed Capitol Hill.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore how the immigration debate is likely to take shape in Annapolis is the architect of the so-called Maryland DREAM Act. Victor Ramirez is a member-elect of the Maryland State Senate. He's a Democrat from Prince George's County who served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 2003 to 2010. Victor Ramirez, thank you very much for joining us.
STATE SEN. VICTOR RAMIREZThank you very much for having me, Kojo. It's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIGood to have you. President Obama said a few weeks ago that his biggest regret of the past congressional session was the failure to pass federal immigration legislation. You've got a plan to offer your own version, as we mentioned earlier, of the so-called DREAM Act when the Maryland general assembly convenes this month. What exactly are you proposing and why do you feel it's necessary that Maryland move forward on it?
RAMIREZWell, Kojo, the reality is that, as President Obama mentioned, the federal government has failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, failed to pass the DREAM Act. And we -- what we have now is many students who were brought here, as in many cases, as toddlers, as babies who have gone through a public school system, who are part of our neighborhoods, who go to our churches, who play Boys & Girls Club with our children, who are our neighbors, who are our children's friends, who now come to a stage where they find themselves out of status with their immigration.
RAMIREZAnd now, the choice is to -- do we keep the best and brightest in the state of Maryland or do we decide to give up on them? And I've taken the initiative to say that we're gonna keep the best and the brightest in the state of Maryland and offer them in-state tuition. And we're gonna treat them the same way that we've treated them when they have gone through a public school system, K-12, and we're gonna treat them the same way as any other high school graduate that's graduating from our public schools. We're gonna give them in-state tuition if they're graduating from our public schools, if their parents or themselves have paid income taxes, and that they sign an affidavit stating that when they do become eligible to become permanent residents and to become undocumented to -- from undocumented to documented residents and to ultimately become U.S. citizens. That is my plan for the state of Maryland.
NNAMDII take it there are therefore three conditions. One, you had to have gone to -- through public schools or gone to school in the state of Maryland though -- from elementary through high school, your parents have to have paid taxes, and you have to express an intention to become a permanent resident.
NNAMDIOkay. It's my understanding that Maryland has had this debate before and that one governor actually vetoed a similar bill. How does the political environment now compared to when those previous debates took place and what conversations, if any, have you had with Gov. O'Malley's staff about your newest proposal?
RAMIREZWell, it is true that Gov. Ehrlich vetoed a similar bill back in 2003.
RAMIREZAnd, you know, with regards to our current governor, some of the conversations did come up as to his stance on a bill similar to the one that I'm proposing. I cannot speak on behalf of the governor, but I can tell you that the conversations that I've had with him seemed that he would be favorable to signing a bill into law.
NNAMDIGov. O'Malley, so far, through his spokesperson, is saying that he would have to examine any immigration-related legislation before deciding whether to support it, but you didn't feel any hostility to it in those conversations you had with him.
RAMIREZNo. My understanding is -- and obviously, he's gonna do his homework and his staff is gonna do his homework to make that he knows what he is actually signing into law. And we look forward to the next 90 days, starting next Wednesday, to fully inform him and go line by line as to what the bill entails and what it does when it goes into effect.
NNAMDIThe Maryland legislative session begins on Jan. 12, next Wednesday. Our guest is Victor Ramirez. He's the member-elect of the Maryland State Senate. He's a Democrat from Prince George's County and he is going to be introducing legislation for a so-called DREAM Act in Maryland that would allow illegal or undocumented immigrants a pathway to being in the country legally. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. How do you feel about offering in-state college tuition benefits to undocumented immigrants? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDISen. Ramirez, I'll call you that even though we -- before you take the position, money is not exactly easy to come by in Maryland right now. The state is looking at a budget shortfall of more than a billion dollars. What would you say to those people who look at a plan to provide tuition benefits for undocumented immigrants and say there's just not any money for this?
RAMIREZWell, I think that one of the misleading or -- perceptions that people have about this is that we're gonna add to the deficit. And that's not right. Right now, the universities and colleges have set aside a certain number of slots or spaces for the universities. This is not gonna increase those numbers but what -- we'll allow our students is to be able to apply for in-state tuition. Just because we passed this, we're not telling the University of Maryland or University of Baltimore County or any other state university that you have to accept these students or you have to make room for them. They will have to compete just like any other student that applies to their universities.
NNAMDIOther states have passed in-state tuition legislation. What have you learned from their experiences with this debate?
RAMIREZWell, that -- I can think to the contrary. That nothing really changes, except that you keep the best and the brightest and that you keep investing in your students. We in the state of Maryland for the second straight year have received the number one ranking for public schools. I would go out on a limb to say that these are part of the reasons these students have contributed to our number one ranking in our public schools and why not keep the best and the brightest if we've already invested in them for many years.
NNAMDIAnthony O'Donnell, the GOP leader of the Maryland House, asked The Washington Post this question: Why should we offer benefits to people who violated the law to get here? How would you respond, Senator Ramirez?
RAMIREZWell, I would respond by saying that, first, we're talking about many cases and, if not all cases, we're talking about children that were brought here by their parents or by someone else. I don't think a 5-year-old or a 2-year-old gets up in the morning and says, "Oh, I wanna go to another country. I wanna go to somewhere else." Of course, not. But what happens is they ultimately become an American by all intents and by all -- by every meaning of it, except for their immigration status. And if you talk to many of them, they do not know their homeland, the country of birth. They know America is their country, and they're as American as American apple pie.
NNAMDIWell, you were born in El Salvador, but you went to elementary school, middle school, high school and college all in the state of Maryland, correct?
NNAMDILet's go to the telephones. Start with Ari in Northwest, Washington. Ari, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
ARIHey, how are you doing?
NNAMDII'm doing well, Ari.
ARIThat's good to hear. Okay. I have a friend that also went through the same thing of went through first to 12 grade, graduated high school. See, I just wanna figure out how would he go about being an advocate for the DREAM Act because I understand that it hasn't been passed yet? How can he help to get it passed as a regular, okay, legal citizen of America?
RAMIREZWell, I think one contact representatives in the State House or in the State Senate and also contact the governor and tell him that you support the DREAM Act of Maryland and that's the first avenue. And then, when -- as the session progresses, there will be hearings for the public to get public input.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Ari. We move on to Charles in Washington, D.C. Charles, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHARLESHi, good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call.
CHARLESI happen to know some advocates and the DREAM Act is kinda like an offshoot. They broke away from a coalition of let's say 700 advocacy groups that are trying to create pro-immigration reform, and I think the argument against the DREAM Act, I hear and that is most important in my opinion, is that it's kinda of counter to the idea that America was built on bringing in the (word?) and the, you know, huddled masses and not about just bringing in the best and the brightest some kind of -- I don't know -- that is compassionate as -- our parents weren't very, you know, best and the brightest. They were just regular people that had big hearts. And I just don't think that this really, you know, it just seems a little bit anti-social just to include the best people and the brightest people and they have to serve in the military and all this other stuff. I just don't find it very...
NNAMDIWell, here's Victor Ramirez, Charles.
RAMIREZWell, I would say that, of course, I mean, of course, when I say the best and the brightest, I'm talking about the state of Maryland. For two straight years, we had the number one public school system. There -- again, I'll say that -- I will go out on the limb to say that some of the students graduating under these circumstances are some of the best and the brightest. Why not keep them in the state of Maryland? I want them to go the University of Maryland. I want them to go to our schools instead of being given a scholarship to Harvard so Harvard can enjoy our hard work, our investment because they are. They are our children, and I want to keep them -- when I say the best and the brightest, you know, I say them for all because they've contributed to our number one ranking and, you know, of course, not everyone is gonna be at the top of their class, but there's a -- many of them, they are.
NNAMDIAnd, Charles, don't you think it's possible for best and brightest to come from the huddled masses?
CHARLESWell, I just think that you're excluding a lot of people that are probably, you know, just as good but they're just not as -- I don't know -- good academically or, you know, I think people can make huge contributions to this country, you know, without having...
NNAMDISo you're suggesting that if somebody came here as a child and went all the way through high school but chooses not to go to college that there should be a pathway for that person to also achieve permanent residence in the United States legally?
CHARLESYeah. Just some more inclusive, you know, (unintelligible).
NNAMDIOkay. Victor Ramirez, how do you respond to that?
RAMIREZWell, of course, we don't want to, you know, discriminate or put anyone not to be documented, but, you know, at the same time, you know, I think this was based on the premise that we have a lot of students that are graduating that are contributing to the American society, and they are making this country better. And that -- and based on that, why not have those students become documented? And why not have them become permanently here without the fear of being deported now?
NNAMDIWe're talking with Victor Ramirez. He's a member-elect of the Maryland State Senate. He's a Democrat from Prince George's County who has introduced a Maryland version of the DREAM Act. Charles, thank you for your call. On to Phyllis in Frederick, Md. Phyllis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PHYLLISHi. Thanks for taking the call. I do agree with the senator. I'm retired. I've had a long life so far and still going. But I agree with the senator. It makes very good sense socially for the future of our country, for social peace and for justice. And this is a beginning, and it's a good beginning. And using these criteria of graduation and intent to go to college or willingness to join the service or, like the DREAM Act, I also agree with that. I think this is a good place to begin. I don't see how anybody can argue against it. And as far as giving this people in-state tuition, makes perfect sense to me. Just perfect sense.
NNAMDIWell, Phyllis, the...
PHYLLISWhy do we wanna...
NNAMDIThe argument against it usually goes like this, Sen. Ramirez. And that is, you are rewarding people for being in the country illegally. If people are in the country illegally, we should be punishing them, not rewarding them. How would you respond to that?
RAMIREZI would say that -- again, going back to how they arrived at this point, it's as is important. And the reality is that in many cases, they were brought here as young children, if not toddlers. And that's what we're talking about. We're talking about children who are now crossing the line between -- coming on to adulthood. What do you do with the children that, again, are our neighbors or are friends of our children? And they're not strangers. They're not strangers to our communities. They're not strangers to our state. And that is the question. And I am the one -- you know, I'll be -- and I would say that when it comes to these children, they are not the ones who broke the law, and that's how I would distinguish that argument.
NNAMDIHere is Roger in Tysons, Va. Roger, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROGERHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I'd like to ask -- well, first of all, Kojo, your argument, the sort of cliché one that does come up, is very valid, and I don't think that, you know, the senator's response sufficiently addresses that. But I'd like to...
NNAMDIYou mean the argument about rewarding people for being in the country illegally?
NNAMDIThat was not my argument. I was simply characterizing the opposition.
ROGERNo, no, no...
NNAMDIBut go ahead.
ROGERYou know, you're absolutely right. But that is typically the argument that people make. But, you know, in hearing this, I have a more basic question that comes on the heels of the past two years, three years, whatever. Which is, you know, first of all, if you're gonna allow people to get financing for college, that in and of itself is a competitive process, right?
ROGERSo, on top of this, if the senator is saying, look, we're just doing this. I mean, we're not gonna tell the colleges, you know, who to admit and who not to. Essentially, he's saying that, look, immigrant children or illegal immigrant children can apply for financing, but they're not guaranteed a spot. So therefore, citizens don't worry because you'll probably end up getting the spot. I'm not saying that the senator is saying probably, but that to me is what the argument sounds like. And even to that, as we've just said, you know, the financing process is a competitive process. And I don't know about you guys, but, to me, it seems like a lesson of the past couple of years, that resources are very scarce, and that there's an economic truth to life, whether or not it's here in this country or in other countries, whatever. And I just think that, on the basis of economics, to sort of give these people who to your point, you know or to the argument's point, are here illegally, to give them that sort of economic privilege, I don't see how that's just. And I'm...
NNAMDIOne quick question for you, Roger, before Victor Ramirez responds. What do you say if these young people tell you, Roger, that the only home I have ever known is in the United States, in Maryland? I don't remember ever having another home.
ROGERWell -- no. And look. That's an equally good point. And, you know, for the, you know, context of a radio talking show, you know, with the couple of seconds I have, I'm not gonna even try and pretend to be able to solve that problem. And I'm not saying that that's not a problem...
ROGER...and that something ought to be done. But that's different than saying that college, right, which is...
ROGER...an asset, right, and it's subject to all the other economic...
NNAMDIThis is different to saying than they should be rewarded. Here is Victor Ramirez, given the fact that we don't have much time left.
RAMIREZThank you very much. And I'll try to answer it as quickly as possible. The reality is, what are we scared of? You know, I think one of the callers said, you know, we should bring the huddled masses. Well, these are the huddled masses. Are we saying that -- are we scared to compete versus poor immigrant children? I don't believe so. I believe that it -- that's what makes this country so special. That's why I love this country, because it gives anyone who's willing to work hard, and I would say, play by the rules, because these children have played by the rules, that they know an opportunity to continue contributing. It is not -- I would say it's not gonna displace American citizens. It's gonna bring out the best in each and every one of us, and it's gonna bring out the best in each and every one of our universities and colleges. And the reality is that we do have a population of students who, every year, graduate and every year are capable. And every year, they come to us and say, this is my only home. And what do we do now? Well, the federal government has failed us, and I think it's time for the state of Maryland not to fail.
NNAMDIWe will be following how this legislation proceeds in the Maryland General Assembly. Victor Ramirez is a member-elect of the Maryland State Senate, Democrat from Prince George's County who served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 2003 to 2010. Victor Ramirez, thank you very much for joining us.
RAMIREZThank you very much, Kojo. It's a pleasure.
NNAMDIIt's been a pleasure talking to you.
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